How Past Mistakes Doomed Sixers’ Title Hopes in the Embiid Era


Can the Sixers (finally) overcome its playoff blunders?

It’s been the primary story for a franchise that hasn’t reached the NBA Finals (or even the Conference Finals) since the days of Allen Iverson back in 2001. Nearly 22 years later since that Finals run and Philly’s resume isn’t pretty— 21 seasons, nine playoffs missed, five first-round exits, six Conference Semifinals departures, and multiple decades of misfortune and disappointment.

Today, Philadelphia continues to be a mainstay in the Eastern Conference pecking order. At 23-14 in the East, the Sixers are 8-2 in their last 10 games, sitting 2.5 games back from the first seen in the conference.

And despite injuries, Joel Embiid continues to look like a legit MVP candidate after back-to-back runner-up finishes in the MVP voting.

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Just check out these numbers from Embiid, including from this year. The improvement is astronomical.

Embiid’s Production By The Numbers (since 2018):

  • 2018-2020 (three post-rookie seasons): 24.6 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 3.3 APG, 48% FG, 31% 3FG, 0.7 SPG, 1.7 BPG
  • 2021 and 2022 (back-to-back MVP runner-up seasons): 29.7 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 3.6 APG, 51% FG, 37% 3FG, 1.1 SPG, 1.4 BPG
  • 2023 (this season): 33.5 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 4.6 APG, 53% FG, 34% 3FG, 1.2 SPG, 1.7 BPG

And yet, it’s hard to overlook Philly’s 25-25 playoff record since 2018. There’s a lot of blame to go around (there’s a laundry list worth of grievances).

However, you don’t need to look far to see where Philly’s front office made some questionable choices.

Let’s take a look back at some recent history, identifying the three biggest inflection points for the franchise.

Blunder No. 1: The 2017 Draft

Hindsight is 20/20, which is why starting off with this move makes the most sense.

At the time, Markelle Fultz was the mostly-consensus first pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. It’s hard to fault the Sixers for taking who the franchise thought was an athletic, game-changing point guard.

And yet, the wound still bleeds from not ending up with Jayson Tatum.

Tatum’s growth from Duke project to versatile, all-around scorer and distributor remains incredible. In his last three seasons, he’s been a 27-point-per-game scorer shooting 36% from three with four assists a night. Top that off with his defense, and it’s clear the value he brings as a multi-position, two-way wing a team dreams of having on its roster. His jump as an MVP candidate this season makes his production more impressive.

Instead, the Sixers went ahead with Fultz, who averaged 7.7 points per game in 33 career games with Philly before getting shipped off to Orlando.

Again, it’s hard to fault Philly given the contest of the 2017 draft at the time. But you imagine the franchise asks itself what an Embiid-Tatum duo would look like together.

Blunder No. 2: The 2018 Draft

  • Philadelphia trades 2018 No. 10 overall pick (Mikal Bridges)
  • Phoenix trades 2018 No. 16 overall pick (Zhaire Smith) and Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick (No. 18 in 2021, Tre Mann)

This move arguably stings the most. Mikal Bridges excelled at Villanova as a two-way wing who had the potential to grow in the league. Next to Embiid, his shooting, defensive versatility and off-ball value could’ve been great for the next decade.

None of that seemed to matter for the Sixers. Philly traded back in the 2018 draft to select Zhaire Smith from Texas Tech instead. To date, Smith suited up for 13 games with the Sixers, having not played in the league since the 2019-2020 season.


Meanwhile, Bridges is a career-38% three-point shooter with all the defensive versatility the Sixers desire. And this season, he’s currently averaging a career-high 15.4 points per game and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 39% from behind the line. And sneakily, he’s one of the league’s most durable players. He’s played in every NBA regular-season game possible for three of the past four years (excluding 2022-2023).

In reality, Philly was better off keeping Bridges on the team while he was on his rookie deal. In past playoff series, the Sixers appeared to lack enough two-way players. That’s why the team traded its first-round pick last offseason to acquire De’Anthony Melton and sign P.J. Tucker.

The deal made little sense at the time. To this day, it’s still hard to compute how much of a whiff trading Bridges was.

Blunder No. 3: Going all-in on Tobias Harris

Sorry, but it’s hard to overlook the ramifications of this trade at the time and in the present day. There’s a lot to unpack with this move, let’s take things back to the 2018-2019 season.

The Sixers got off to a strong start after acquiring former Bulls’ All-Star Jimmy Butler to pair alongside Embiid and Ben Simmons. Then Sixers general manager Elton Brand went all-in, shipping off three role players and four draft picks to acquire Tobias Harris.

Before joining the Sixers, Harris was a borderline All-Star, averaging a career-high 20.2 points per game shooting 50% from the field and 43% from three. The idea, according to Brand, was to create a “Big Four” with Embiid, Simmons, Butler and Harris.

The only problem: both Butler and Harris were in the last year of their deals, each set to be an unrestricted free agent in the 2019 offseason.

We know how the first part of the story goes: Kawhi Leonard‘s quadruple-bounce shot ends Philly’s title hopes for good.

However, it’s hard to ignore the second half of the saga— the decision to re-sign Harris over Butler.

The Sixers gave Harris a five-year, $180 million extension before trading Butler to Miami. Since then, the Heat have reached the Conference Finals twice and the Finals once. Butler submitted an all-time performance in the 2020 NBA Bubble and the 2022 playoffs, never shying away from the postseason intensity. On the other hand, Philly hasn’t reached either.

Meanwhile, Harris’ shooting regressed to 17.9 points per game and 38% from three the last three seasons. It’s a decent stat line for sure, but not worth $180 million worth of cap space or losing Butler’s playoff heroics in the process.

Deep sigh of relief, Sixers fans. With Embiid and Harden, hope is still in the air to bring a title to Philly.

But time is ticking.

About Dominic Chiappone

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